Anyone with any sense who wants to achieve anything in life will know that accountability is crucial. Having some form of moderation to prevent us going off the rails or making rash and badly-judged decisions is key to building a legacy that will stand the test of time. We all have our own internal warning systems in the form of our consciousnesses that heighten our sense of moral responsibility. But being the flawed and often selfish individuals that we are, relying on these alone is a dangerous game: we need outside checks and interventions to guide and enhance our moral compasses. The potential for horrific outcomes when those in power with weak consciences and no interest in listening to wise advice is all too apparent throughout history.
For Christians, choosing to follow God’s will and accept the guidance of the Holy Spirit over and above our sinful desires is fully part of the deal. The Bible sets out vast amounts of teaching on the matter, both in the form of encouragement and warnings. There is plenty about seeking to do the right thing and holding each other to account for the benefit of us as individuals, the body of God’s people in the form of the Church, and beyond. There are also numerous examples from Israel’s history where both leaders and the nation paid a heavy price for straying from the paths of righteousness. Time after time God would send his prophets to speak directly into situations when the people turned their back on Him, and disdain His justice and mercy.
Such clear precedents give good reason for the churches in this nation to follow the prophetic example and publicly criticise our politicians and government – criticism in this case being defined in its truest sense; of drawing attention to both merits and faults.
In a recent article I wrote for Christian Today, I discussed the benefits of coalition where the government, by nature of a two-party arrangement, is forced to self-regulate as both factions work together in exercising a degree of compromise. Now that we are back to the more familiar situation of single-party government, I argued, with the decimation of the LibDems and Labour in disarray, that for the foreseeable future at least, the Church will provide the most effective form of opposition, providing a level of external conscience watching over the new Conservative Government.
To prove the point, within two days three such examples had arisen. In an open letter from a United Reformed Church minister, David Cameron has been challenged to spend a week living on the minimum wage, or to volunteer in a foodbank for a whole day. The letter has gone viral. The Rev’d Mike Walsh’s Facebook post has been shared over 100,000 times and has made it into the newspapers. The Bishop of Sheffield, Steven Croft, has also written to the Prime Minister to remind him of the story in 1 Kings of King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, who, following his father’s death, consulted two sets of advisors. The first group, his father’s counsellors, advised him to listen to the people; to be their servant; to reach out to the disaffected and lead from this foundation. The second group, his peers and close confidants, advised him to meet discontent with harshness. Rehoboam chose to listen to his younger advisors with their harsher and more strident voices. A few years later the kingdom was divided, at war, impoverished and in chaos.
Although this message was directed to the Prime Minister, it was actually prophetic for Ukip: the following day, Patrick O’Flynn, the party’s economics spokesman, claimed Nigel Farage had become a “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive” man, having fallen under the influence of “inexperienced” advisors, two of whom subsequently stepped down from their positions.
Such episodes serve as a reminder that when Church leaders are keen to enter the political fray, they should look to aim their corrections and rebukes at all parties, and not just exclusively at whichever one is in government.
The third intervention comes from the leaders of four of the largest denominations: the Baptist Union, the United Reformed Church, the Methodists and the Church of Scotland. If anyone thought that the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter issued before the election was left-wing, then this is likely to be considered even more so. It calls on David Cameron to scrap Trident, and demands that proposals for the transfer of additional powers to Scotland which followed the referendum be enacted. These, along with a reminder of the election result in Scotland, give a decidedly pro-SNP flavour to the letter, and somewhat detracts from the rest of the content which is considerably more gracious and even-handed. It offers congratulations on the Conservatives’ election success, with a reminder of some of their great achievements over the last five years, along with an assurance of prayer.
In fact, to the credit of all of the writers, they express a good deal of grace and support: their respect and submission to the authorities (Rom 13:1ff) is apparent and unambiguous. Also key themes emerge: a deep concern for truth, justice, peace and the wellbeing of each and every person, including the weak and vulnerable. The need to review benefits sanctions and the ‘bedroom tax’ is repeatedly made, along with increasing fears for those living on the wrong side of the poverty line.
The Church is dealing out these concerns not because it wishes to humiliate and demonise this Government, but because it wants it to be the best government that it can be for all people, which is why these pronouncements should be taken as a form of encouragement as opposed to the typical partisan opposition which can be destructive and intrinsically detrimental. The Church’s task is to speak truth to power, and a government ignores it at its peril. It may not be perfect in its expression of truth, and may occasionally direct its ire toward the wrong power, but David Cameron would be prudent to heed the collective wisdom of the churches and discern the spirit, test motives and weigh words, for within there will be wisdom. ‘Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice (Prov 13:10).